Monday, March 24, 2008

Secrets of the Trade

There is a well-kept secret in the fragrance industry: A secret Perfume Shrine has been privy to, but not sworn to secrecy and if she doesn't reveal sources, all is well. So, my sweeties, today I will reveal it to you!
Yes, yes, I know you will cast unbelieving and imploring puppy eyes to the Shrine and ultimately want to say "Nah...Helg is having a bitchy day, that's all!". But no, I swear to you that this comes from inside info and is very credible.

We have talked time and again how it is my personal opinion based on several little factoids from observation and discussions that people when judging a fragrance rely as much on their eyes as they do on their noses, if not more. What I mean: there is the undeniable brand recognition which even though is often pooh-poohed, it usually does feature right there in the factors that contribute in making a decision to even sample a fragrance in the first place. The latest discussion I initiated on Perfume of Life on this produced interesting results. It sounds like a trusted house, a brand which produces perfumes that are simpatico to one's sensibilities or which has a interesting reputation is more likely to get customers to sample their other products as well. Of course this is not exactly inventing the wheel: it applies in so many other markets as well. But it is especially applicable in perfumery, it seems. If one consolidates a brand well enough, then customer interest will be forever piqued. This is what happened with Serge Lutens and his olfactory seraglio of lovelies. Even the less lovelies are not wont for desire to sample. Every new Serge is a thirst to be quenched! The same applies to Chanel. And in so many more ways than one.

Coco Chanel herself had the wonderful knack of knowing how to provide what women wanted, yet did not know they wanted it just yet. This is a quality that marks the successful enterpreneur from the unsuccessful one and it is -completely coincidentally I am sure- the secret of the marketability of Tom Ford and everything he touches (ewww).
But to revert to Chanel. The brand has a solid, unshakable seal of approval. It's the Homeric καλος κιαγαθος (=beautiful and virtuous): no woman -or man, for that matter- who wears Chanel could be accused of commiting a serious faux pas in the eyes of good taste. It's the brand with the highest visibility of all luxury brands, the one which most people recognise at a glance, the one who has safe-guarded its pedigree best of all and the one who has been faked most; which only serves to prove that people desire it desperately.
Chanel No.5 is so iconic that it has stayed in the top 5 of perfume bestsellers in France for years (to be slightly nudged off its pedestral by Angel in recent years) and it features among the top 10 or at least top 15 in almost every market it is available. It is this which has earned No.5 the moniker le monstre (=the monster; against which everything is compared to in terms of sales), because of its immense marketability. The thing practically sells itself.
And yet (and here is the catch), when participating in blind tests, the fragrance does especially poor! This is something that has been discussed in the corridors of Firmenich, Givaudan, International Flavors and Fragrances and the rest of those hidden pillars of capitalism for some time now. But the average customer does not frequent those places, ergo he/she is unaware of those facts. What is left is hearsay and their own nose. And so often the former is commenting deafeningly louder than the subleties of the latter.

And yet there are people who object with their nose more than their eyes. You might call it whatever you like, but it's there, it's tangible and it's a share of the market that is breathing and kicking and yielding bucks in the pocket. So not to be patronised. I came across this fascinating recount:
"i'll eventually figure out the note in perfumes like that, but right now i'm calling it "french". there are fragrances that smell french to me, it's a sharp powdery/sweet note that makes me think of grannies. maybe when i'm a granny i'll decide to smell like that.

i've tried chanel 5 on me so many times, always hoping for a different result. even in the dry down, i hate it. and i hear these young celebrities bragging about wearing it, and i think, "there's no way you actually like how that smells. you're wearing it for the name". it's been one of the most popular fragrances since it's release and i can't figure out why".
~from If Only it Were Fiction blog

Don't get me wrong: I like Chanel No.5. In fact I own some and have been enjoying it for years. It was first given to me at the tender age of 14: "every girl should try out Chanel No.5" the fairy-godmother told me. I even keep some in extrait de parfum form. But is it the be all and end all of fragrances? Probably not.

I thought you might want to be privy to this secret as well. Let's call it our secret handshake ;-)

Eddie: Sweetie, what are you drinking?
Patsy: Oh this? Chanel No. 5.
~from Absolutely Fabulous

Pic from Chanel 2001-2002 campaign courtesy of Elegant Lifestyle


  1. Anonymous16:42

    Excellent post, thank you!, and frightening of course because the same phenomenon you find everywhere! Thus, we should all watch us in the mirror for a second, and wonder: Is it really for its taste that I bought this COKE, and the Levis, do they really feel better and make me look great or is it just the Levis tag and my having spent 100 .- that gives me this cool look ;-)

  2. Anonymous17:07

    My 12 girlfriends (age 23-41)and I blindtested these 5 fragrances a month ago: No5, Elle, Code, Mugler Cologne, Eau de Cartier. (None of us is an expert in scents, all are at least a little interested). The task was to identify No5. Only 2 succeeded! 10 of us mistook Elle, Code, MC or Eau de C. for No5. Quite horrible actually...

    : Maltesia

  3. Dear Andy,

    you're welcome and it's great to see you weight in.
    That's right, what you're saying: how much is our perception distorted regarding results vs reputation?
    (There is an interesting test with detergents which showed how the consumer thinks that just because X brand supposedly contains Y ingredient it cleans better: the consumers thought so, even when Y ingredient was actually missing from the formula, but had been TOLD that it was in there....)

  4. Maltesia,

    welcome! What a FASCINATING blind-test. Of course No.5 has influenced more perfumes than one might think of (and some of them are very far-fetched if going by conventional info available), but yes, one would think that since it's so ubiquitous a smell it should be immediately apparent.

  5. I hope you feel well again soon, dear helg. The flu is no fun at all. {{hug}}
    You know, I honestly think that Chanel is the 'Teflon' of perfumery. matter how savage...just seems to glide off those elegant, entwined C's. Chanel equals chic, and in this distinctly un-chic age we live in, that means something special.

  6. Thank you dear Mary. It's been the worst I remember in years, honestly!

    How cleverly coined: the Teflon of perfumery. Indeed those entwined Cs stand for chic (is it any coincidence it begin with the same letter?). I like Chanel perfumes myself. Is it the mythos that fascinates though?

  7. I have a confession to make here: several years into my perfume addiction, I've only just learned to love 5... I avoided it precisely for the reasons that some people buy it: its ubiquitousness and status as the ur-perfume. Then I worked on a lecture about the classic Chanels and had to study it more closely. And I finally "got" it.
    I think one of the reasons it does so poorly in contemporary blind tests is its "perfume-y-ness": unlike the current fruity florals, foodies and clean musks, it's not immediately flattering -- in the sense that New World wines, for instance, are called "flatteurs" in French because of their palate-pleasing, fruity or vanilla-y quality. "Le 5" has a harsh opening that doesn't ring any bells to uninitiated noses. It smells of itself. It takes some getting used to. But if it sells so well, it can't be just to first-time customers, so clearly it does please, in the end... And not just because it's from the big Double C.

  8. Anonymous20:43

    Wow, what a fascinating topic! Very nice analysis, Helg. I don't doubt that No. 5 is doing poorly in tests while at the same time being the best-selling perfume. I believe that not only is there's a whole lot of mystique due to Mmlle. Chanel herself (love to see her in pictures, what a woman!), her vision of creating what she wanted regardless of what was in vogue at the time, this timeless, beautiful, and most classic of all perfume bottles, and last but not least Marylin's association with it that all helped to make it the 'monstre' it is today.

  9. Anonymous20:45

    Sorry, forgot to say I'm glad you're feeling better. The flu sure can do one in.

  10. Dear D,

    I am very glad to hear you finally "got" it and I can very much understand the aversion all these years (I have smelled it on near bag-ladies -or was it a knock-off?- and started wondering to tell you the truth).
    It's true that it is quite perfumey (which can be a wonderful trait!!), but then not all perfumey fragrances do equally well: compare it with its shadowed sister Arpege or the other aldehydics who do not enjoy such a reputation.
    However I do believe that recurring customers do speak of a certain satisfaction borne out of it. And to that end I can personally see a little part of me too :-)

  11. Dear Sabina,

    thank you for your kind concern for my health and for your wonderful compliment!
    The associations have played a prominent part in making it a classic, but also a commercial success.
    Marilyn wore other perfumes as well, but its her infamous line that skyrocketed its "sexy"/racy fame (compare and contrast to today's tastes and perceptions: how much sexy is it considered today? It's usually tagged as "elegant" or "ladylike").
    It's all very interesting, isn't it?

  12. Hm, I find Chanel to be an interesting case study in how to market luxury goods. From a distance, away from the hype, I do not, for the most part, find their products attractive. I don't really care for those quilted bags, and look on most of Karl Lagerfeld's designs with a dubious eye (denim bra, what?). But I think the fragrances have sold, and deserve to be sold, not only because they are beautiful, but also... they have a house signature. It's not just the aldehydes, it also smells expensive. That's sort of an olfactory language that everyone can respect.

    However, I'm not so happy about how huge those Les Exclusifs are! I wish they made them in something less than Ogre-sized bottles.

  13. Dain,

    thank you for your erudite comment.
    A case study is true! The perfumes are pretty, there is no doubt about that and in fact I have solid favourites in their line. They do smell expensive (or more expensive than other brands).
    The bottle size of Les Exclusifs has been a sore point for me as well: they were going for abandon in use and exclusivity due to price. Oh well...I've said my piece on those last year about this time.


  14. Anonymous08:17

    have you seen about no. 5 at Teacakery's blog? About the arctic connotations of that particular perfume. I look foreward to next time wearing it, because of this, for me, new info! :)
    Agree with all thinking it is a difficult perfume to wear, although. I didn't like it for years, but now slowly have begun to appreciate it.

  15. Thank you Stella Polaris, indeed I had read the same sources about the creation of No.5, which btw is surrounded with a lot of tales, some imaginary, some not. Teacake is very smart :-)
    Now, to be devil's advocate, I find it rather easy to wear. I would find Arpege for instance much harder

  16. Anonymous09:16

    I had in general problems with aldehydes, and some "abstract smells". Guess I had to develop some level of sophistication in my smelling abilities before being able to appreciate it. Arpege belongs to the category that I like to smell, but would not chose to wear..

  17. Funny you should say that. Abstract is a great description: it does not smell of anything found in nature (a flower, a bouquet, a food or a tree). Therefore it is an acquired taste.
    I am not much of an Arpege wearer myself, although I have no difficulty in wearing No.5 even with casual clothes. In fact I almost always wear it with casual clothes to disassociate it from its "faux-elegant" image.

  18. Anonymous13:21

    Contrasts and tensions like you describe between outfit and scent are also interest-inducing and even sexy.. :)
    (just now I enjoy the warm smell of figs (Philosykos), contrasted with the sparkling cold sunshine outside my window (against almost hurtingly beautiful white snow!); even though this combination is not sexy at all)

  19. Oh, that sounds very interesting! Haven't thought of this before, but then I so associate figs with late summer.

  20. I like the contrasts and tensions note in clothes, perfumery, adornment.
    In accord w/ Andy, beyond doubt.

    Feel better, ma fille....

  21. Anonymous02:33

    interesting post. I have loved No 5 for years - on my skin and with the parfum strength, I get no powder, just aldehydes, a lovely animal note, and a bit of the woodiness/spice that is prominent in Bois des Iles. To me, the older Chanels do speak the same scent language, as a previous post noted. Not just expensive but also some common notes that are more in the background in some of the perfumes and more in the foreground in others. Same with the 6 new Les Exclusives. Kind of like a musical suite? (note bias of a Beaux/old Chanel lover :))

  22. Dear Kim,

    thank you for your very interesting comment: musical suite sounds about right to me. There is a common thread among the older Chanels I have smelled (with the exception of the re-issued Gardenia ~and I mean the pre-Exclusifs reissue, not just the latest).

    To me personally No.5 is all about the ylang-ylang and musk: they play out very notably on me. But everyone finds different things standing out more.

  23. Anonymous18:32

    Ps: if No.5 was not such a superb scent in itself, it would not have gained its reputation, regardless of creation myths and propaganda. 'Odors in and of themselves make myth possible', Gaston Bachelard.

  24. Thank you dear I for your kind words and well-wishes :-))

  25. SP,

    I love your quote by Bachelard. Worth keeping in mind!

  26. "French style" is the best word to describe it! If we look back in magazines and trade documents (50-60-70) there were 2 ways to call a floral aldehydic: one was "modern type" and the second was "french type". Before the aldehydic term started to be used, perfume books/articles reffered to this type as the "French type". There was French type No 1 and French type No 2 - the second was the chypre aldehydic perfume.
    Today No5 smells perfumery because this kind of formula is rare.
    But back to 70's there were a lot of fragrances, and succeses that belonged to that category (Caleche, Rive Gauche ... etc), not to speak about all the cheap/affordable perfumes, and the soaps. Today I think that a lot of people smelling them would say ... it smells "perfume" (bad conotation) and would not say the same about something like .... Miss Dior Cherie or J'adore. They would say maybe, it smells good or natural. It is interesting to know ... what will think the next generation about today big hits, about Angel and all the fruit salads.

  27. Thanks Octavian for another interesting comment!

    French style is about how that woman in the blog characterised it, so she was right.
    It's true that the seventies were big on aldehydics: Rive Gauche was a huge hit!
    I also believe that those kind of smells are often tied to people's minds with soap, exactly because the soap industry copied the basic accords where possible (there is of course the issue of jasmine oil rendering the soaps brown etc)
    I can't believe however how Miss Dior Cherie of all things might seem "natural" to someone!! We will see, I guess. It's an interesting thing to watch.


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